There are many reasons to switch from modern synthetic menstrual products to traditional fabric “rags” and other re-usables. Manufactured products are costly, contain unlisted toxic ingredients, inhibit airflow and the proper elimination of menses, are generally made from non-renewable resources and end up in landfills.
The chemical soup
There is no research proving that synthetic tampons and pads are actually safe for women, and independent studies by women’s health organisations have found chemicals of concern, such as dioxins, carcinogens and reproductive toxins present in disposable menstrual products. Dioxins and other disinfection by-products (DBPs) can linger as a result of chlorine bleaching of the absorbent materials found in these products. Published reports show that even trace dioxin levels may be linked to abnormal tissue and cell growth, immune system suppression and hormonal and endocrine system disruption.
We know that manufactured pads contain synthetic fibers and petrochemical additives, and there are indications that some conventional sanitary pads contain the equivalent of four plastic bags! Plasticising chemicals like BPA and BPS disrupt embryonic development and are linked to heart disease and cancer. Plastics also restrict air flow – trapping heat and dampness – promoting yeast and bacteria growth. Synthetic sanitary pads can also contain other hazardous ingredients such as odour neutralisers and fragrances. This creates a veritable chemical soup of toxins and carcinogens that are gaining direct access to our bloodstream! Unfortunately, it’s hard to ascertain exactly what goes into these tampons and sanitary pads because manufacturers aren’t required to disclose ingredients due to the items’ legal classification as “medical devices.”
The multi-million dollar feminine hygiene industry likes to say that the amount of these toxins in a single pad or tampon is very low, but if you consider that the average woman will use 16,800 tampons in her lifetime, we need to consider the cumulative health effects of exposure to these toxins and carcinogens. Understanding the alternatives to synthetic menstrual products will also help us make informed decisions about our feminine hygiene care.
Fabric pads and liners
Washable fabric menstrual pads, interlabial pads, and pantiliners all aim to direct the flow of menses to the pad. Worn primarily outside the body and usually snapped, velcroed or buttoned around underwear they aim to soak and collect menses fluid. The used washable fabric pads and liners are then soaked, washed, dried, and re-used: with proper maintenance they can last five years or more. Many women build up quite a “stash” and alternate styles, shapes, absorbencies and designs for use from day to day. It’s also easy to up-cycle other gently used fabrics into “new” fabric pads.
If you decide to buy pre-made pads, there are plenty of work-at-home-mums you can support through their websites or on Etsy. Omee’s Boutique, based in Canada, sells start-up kits and individual pads via her Etsy shop. Keep in mind though that due to some recent FDA regulation changes, the availability of fabric pads to and within the USA is considerably decreased due to the new requirement that all sellers pay nearly $3600 in yearly registration fees. Large companies can afford to be legally compliant, but smaller US-based shopkeepers have opted to close up their shops or have gone “underground” making new products only for themselves, family and friends.
If you are more the crafty-type, there are loads of online forums, discussion groups and printable patterns that walk you through the steps for making your very own pads in a variety of shapes, sizes, styles and absorbencies. One of the major plusses of fabric pads are the almost infinite varieties of prints, colours and designs. Pads with rainbows, unicorns, or Wonder Woman make getting your period almost fun! Another plus of washable pads is that after switching to natural materials, many women report shorter less painful periods with a considerable decrease in odour.
You can also make a huge difference in many young women’s lives by donating supplies, time and sewing skills to make washable trifold fabric pad kits for young women in developing countries. In many parts of the world, young girls are forced to stay home from school or face sexual abuse due to lack of access to proper feminine hygiene products. Just to stay in school and avoid “detection” they resort to using leaves, mattress stuffing, newspaper, corn husks, rocks, sawdust or anything else they can find – but many still end up missing up to two months of school every year! Organisations like Days For Girls can help you get proper sanitary products and supplies into the hands of women and girls in developing countries – preventing reproductive tract infections (RTIs) and keeping them in school for more days every year in order to climb more effectively out of poverty.
Menstrual sponges are also another option for women who prefer something inside to collect their flow. Specially shaped sea sponges are inserted in the vaginal canal or up against the cervix to collect menstrual flow. When full or uncomfortable the sponge is removed then either rinsed and re-inserted, alternated with a clean sponge, or sanitised and stored for future use. Since they are 100% natural sea sponges, they need to be inspected for loose bits and properly cleaned before use. They should also be inspected frequently for wear, lasting only six cycles or so before they begin showing signs of staining and breakdown. Some women report using them for years, but I believe it best to replace them more frequently than that.
Knitted organic cotton absorbent “tampons” are another option – but might pose some of the same risks, including the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) that come with inserting highly absorbent or scratchy items directly inside the vagina during menses. Inserting items into the vagina during menses is questionably safe: this is because items that have roughness to them or absorbent fibers may overly dry the tissue or cause small cuts and tears – thereby placing women are greater risk of serious infection. If one chooses to use internal devices, one can minimise the risk of developing serious infections by alternating their use with external pads.
A menstrual cup is a bell-shaped flexible device usually made of medical grade silicone. It’s worn inside the vagina up around the cervix during menstruation to catch the menstrual fluid and can be worn during the day and overnight. It may only need to be removed and emptied every 12 hours – but some women find they need to empty them more frequently, depending on their flow. Menstrual cups are an environmentally-friendly, comfortable, convenient and cost-effective alternative. There are different sizes and shapes for best-fit before and after childbirth. Users relate that they can last anywhere from 1-10 years with proper use, cleaning and storage.
If you are concerned about the chemicals that you use and consume on a daily basis, it’s important to consider the chemicals we are inserting internally as well. Monthly exposure to the manufacturing by-products, pesticides, plastics and synthetic fibers of “traditional” pads and tampons are not worth the risk to reproductive and general health.
For more information about fabric pads and Omee’s Boutique, you can visit her website:
To learn more about donating time or resources to Days For Girls visit their website: www.daysforgirls.org
Janet Kozak is founder and COO of the PR and communications firm Resoulute. She’s an entrepreneur driven by business insights and boundless creativity. Janet’s most interested in women-owned business development and social causes including public health issues and domestic violence education in Muslim communities. She founded an online advocacy and support group, Muslim Women Against Domestic Violence and Abuse, and also recently spoke on the topic of financial abuse at the 2nd International Conference on Women’s Empowerment in Karachi, Pakistan. She can be found on Facebook and Twitter.